Dan Phillips

Creative houses from reclaimed stuff

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Thank you very much. I have a few pictures, and I'll talk a little bit about how I'm able to do what I do. All these houses are built from between 70 and 80 percent recycled material, stuff that was headed to the mulcher, the landfill, the burn pile. It was all just gone. This is the first house I built. This double front door here with the three-light transom, that was headed to the landfill. Have a little turret there. And then these buttons on the corbels here — right there — those are hickory nuts. And these buttons there — those are chicken eggs.




Of course, first you have breakfast, and then you fill the shell full of Bondo and paint it and nail it up, and you have an architectural button in just a fraction of the time.


This is a look at the inside. You can see the three-light transom there with the eyebrow windows. Certainly an architectural antique headed to the landfill — even the lockset is probably worth 200 dollars. Everything in the kitchen was salvaged. There's a 1952 O'Keefe & Merritt stove, if you like to cook — cool stove. This is going up into the turret. I got that staircase for 20 dollars, including delivery to my lot.




Then, looking up in the turret, you see there are bulges and pokes and sags and so forth. Well, if that ruins your life, well, then, you shouldn't live there.




This is a laundry chute. And this right here is a shoe last — those are those cast-iron things you see at antique shops. So I had one of those, so I made some low-tech gadgetry, where you just stomp on the shoe last, and then the door flies open and you throw your laundry down. And then if you're smart enough, it goes on a basket on top of the washer. If not, it goes into the toilet.




This is a bathtub I made, made out of scrap two-by-four. Started with the rim, and then glued and nailed it up into a flat, corbeled it up and flipped it over, then did the two profiles on this side. It's a two-person tub. After all, it's not just a question of hygiene, but there's a possibility of recreation as well.




Then, this faucet here is just a piece of Osage orange. It looks a little phallic, but after all, it's a bathroom.




This is a house based on a Budweiser can. It doesn't look like a can of beer, but the design take-offs are absolutely unmistakable: the barley hops design worked up into the eaves, then the dentil work comes directly off the can's red, white, blue and silver. Then, these corbels going down underneath the eaves are that little design that comes off the can. I just put a can on a copier and kept enlarging it until I got the size I want. Then, on the can it says, "This is the famous Budweiser beer, we know of no other beer, blah, blah, blah." So we changed that and put, "This is the famous Budweiser house. We don't know of any other house ..." and so forth and so on. This is a deadbolt. It's a fence from a 1930s shaper, which is a very angry woodworking machine. And they gave me the fence, but they didn't give me the shaper, so we made a deadbolt out of it. That'll keep bull elephants out, I promise.




And sure enough, we've had no problems with bull elephants.




The shower is intended to simulate a glass of beer. We've got bubbles going up there, then suds at the top with lumpy tiles. Where do you get lumpy tiles? Well, of course, you don't. But I get a lot of toilets, and so you just dispatch a toilet with a hammer, and then you have lumpy tiles. And then the faucet is a beer tap.




Then, this panel of glass is the same panel of glass that occurs in every middle-class front door in America. We're getting tired of it. It's kind of clichéd now. If you put it in the front door, your design fails. So don't put it in the front door; put it somewhere else. It's a pretty panel of glass. But if you put it in the front door, people say, "Oh, you're trying to be like those guys, and you didn't make it." So don't put it there. Then, another bathroom upstairs. This light up here is the same light that occurs in every middle-class foyer in America. Don't put it in the foyer. Put it in the shower, or in the closet, but not in the foyer. Then, somebody gave me a bidet, so it got a bidet.




This little house here, those branches there are made out of Bois d'arc or Osage orange. These pictures will keep scrolling as I talk a little bit.


In order to do what I do, you have to understand what causes waste in the building industry. Our housing has become a commodity, and I'll talk a little bit about that. But the first cause of waste is probably even buried in our DNA. Human beings have a need for maintaining consistency of the apperceptive mass. What does that mean? What it means is, for every perception we have, it needs to tally with the one like it before, or we don't have continuity, and we become a little bit disoriented. So I can show you an object you've never seen before. Oh, that's a cell phone. But you've never seen this one before. What you're doing is sizing up the pattern of structural features, and then you go through your databanks: Cell phone. Oh! That's a cell phone. If I took a bite out of it, you'd go, "Wait a second.




"That's not a cell phone. That's one of those new chocolate cell phones."




You'd have to start a new category, right between cell phones and chocolate.




That's how we process information.


You translate that to the building industry. If we have a wall of windowpanes and one pane is cracked, we go, "Oh, dear. That's cracked. Let's repair it. Let's take it out and throw it away so nobody can use it and put a new one in." Because that's what you do with a cracked pane. Never mind that it doesn't affect our lives at all. It only rattles that expected pattern and unity of structural features. However, if we took a small hammer, and we added cracks to all the other windows —




then we have a pattern. Because Gestalt psychology emphasizes recognition of pattern over parts that comprise a pattern. We'll go, "Ooh, that's nice." So, that serves me every day. Repetition creates pattern. If I have 100 of these, 100 of those, it makes no difference what these and those are. If I can repeat anything, I have the possibility of a pattern, from hickory nuts and chicken eggs, shards of glass, branches. It doesn't make any difference. That causes a lot of waste in the building industry.


The second cause is, Friedrich Nietzsche, along about 1885, wrote a book titled "The Birth of Tragedy." And in there, he said cultures tend to swing between one of two perspectives: on the one hand, we have an Apollonian perspective, which is very crisp and premeditated and intellectualized and perfect. On the other end of the spectrum, we have a Dionysian perspective, which is more given to the passions and intuition, tolerant of organic texture and human gesture. So the way the Apollonian personality takes a picture or hangs a picture is, they'll get out a transit and a laser level and a micrometer. "OK, honey. A thousandth of an inch to the left. That's where we want the picture. Right. Perfect!" Predicated on plumb level, square and centered. The Dionysian personality takes the picture and goes:




That's the difference. I feature blemish. I feature organic process. Dead center John Dewey. Apollonian mindset creates mountains of waste. If something isn't perfect, if it doesn't line up with that premeditated model? Dumpster. "Oops. Scratch. Dumpster." "Oops" this, "oops" that. Landfill, landfill, landfill.


The third thing is arguably — The Industrial Revolution started in the Renaissance with the rise of humanism, then got a little jump start along about the French Revolution. By the middle of the 19th century, it's in full flower. And we have dumaflaches and gizmos and contraptions that will do anything that we, up to that point, had to do by hand. So now we have standardized materials. Well, trees don't grow two inches by four inches, eight, ten and twelve feet tall.




We create mountains of waste. And they're doing a pretty good job there in the forest, working all the byproduct of their industry — with OSB and particle board and so forth and so on — but it does no good to be responsible at the point of harvest in the forest if consumers are wasting the harvest at the point of consumption. And that's what's happening. And so if something isn't standard, "Oops, dumpster." "Oops" this. "Oops, warped." If you buy a two-by-four and it's not straight, you can take it back. "Oh, I'm so sorry, sir. We'll get you a straight one." Well, I feature all those warped things because repetition creates pattern, and it's from a Dionysian perspective.


The fourth thing is labor is disproportionately more expensive than materials. Well, that's just a myth. And there's a story: Jim Tulles, one of the guys I trained — I said, "Jim, it's time now. I got a job for you as a foreman on a framing crew. Time for you to go." "Dan, I just don't think I'm ready." "Jim, now it's time. You're the down — oh!" So we hired on. And he was out there with a tape measure, going through the trash heap, looking for header material, or the board that goes over a door, thinking he'd impress his boss — that's how we taught him to do it. The superintendent walked up and said, "What are you doing?" "Oh, just looking for header material," waiting for that kudos. He said, "I'm not paying you to go through the trash. Get back to work." And Jim had the wherewithal to say, "You know, if you were paying me 300 dollars an hour, I can see how you might say that. But right now, I'm saving you five dollars a minute. Do the math."




"Good call, Tulles. From now on, you guys hit this pile first." And the irony is that he wasn't very good at math.




But once in a while, you get access to the control room, and then you can kind of mess with the dials. And that's what happened there.


The fifth thing is that maybe, after 2,500 years, Plato is still having his way with us in his notion of perfect forms. He said that we have in our noggin the perfect idea of what we want, and we force environmental resources to accommodate that. So we all have in our head the perfect house, the American dream, which is a house, the dream house. The problem is we can't afford it. So we have the American dream look-alike, which is a mobile home. Now there's a blight on the planet.




It's a chattel mortgage, just like furniture, just like a car. You write the check, and instantly, it depreciates 30 percent. After a year, you can't get insurance on everything you have in it, only on 70 percent. Wired with 14-Gauge wire, typically. Nothing wrong with that, unless you ask it to do what 12-Gauge wire's supposed to do, and that's what happens. It out-gasses formaldehyde — so much so that there is a federal law in place to warn new mobile home buyers of the formaldehyde atmosphere danger. Are we just being numbingly stupid? The walls are this thick. The whole thing has the structural value of corn.




"So ... I thought Palm Harbor Village was over there." "No, no. We had a wind last night. It's gone now."




Then when they degrade, what do you do with them?


Now, all that — that Apollonian, Platonic model — is what the building industry is predicated on, and there are a number of things that exacerbate that. One is that all the professionals, all the tradesmen, vendors, inspectors, engineers, architects all think like this. And then it works its way back to the consumer, who demands the same model. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can't get out of it. Then here come the marketeers and the advertisers. "Woo. Woo-hoo." We buy stuff we didn't know we needed. All we have to do is look at what one company did with carbonated prune juice. How disgusting.




But you know what they did? They hooked a metaphor into it and said, "I drink Dr. Pepper ..." And pretty soon, we're swilling that stuff by the lake-ful, by the billions of gallons. It doesn't even have real prunes! Doesn't even keep you regular.




My oh my, that makes it worse. And we get sucked into that faster than anything.


Then, a man named Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a book titled "Being and Nothingness." It's a pretty quick read. You can snap through it in maybe —




maybe two years, if you read eight hours a day. In there, he talked about the divided self. He said human beings act differently when they know they're alone than when they know somebody else is around. So if I'm eating spaghetti, and I know I'm alone, I can eat like a backhoe. I can wipe my mouth on my sleeve, napkin on the table, chew with my mouth open, make little noises, scratch wherever I want.




But as soon as you walk in, I go, "Oops! Lil' spaghetti sauce there." Napkin in my lap, half-bites, chew with my mouth closed, no scratching. Now, what I'm doing is fulfilling your expectations of how I should live my life. I feel that expectation, and so I accommodate it, and I'm living my life according to what you expect me to do. That happens in the building industry as well. That's why all subdivisions look the same. Sometimes, we even have these formalized cultural expectations. I'll bet all your shoes match. Sure enough, we all buy into that ...




And with gated communities, we have a formalized expectation, with a homeowners' association. Sometimes those guys are Nazis, my oh my. That exacerbates and continues this model.


The last thing is gregariousness. Human beings are a social species. We like to hang together in groups, just like wildebeests, just like lions. Wildebeests don't hang with lions, because lions eat wildebeests. Human beings are like that. We do what that group does that we're trying to identify with. You see this in junior high a lot. Those kids, they'll work all summer long — kill themselves — so that they can afford one pair of designer jeans. So along about September, they can stride in and go, "I'm important today. See? Don't touch my designer jeans! I see you don't have designer jeans. You're not one of the beautiful — See, I'm one of the beautiful people. See my jeans?" Right there is reason enough to have uniforms. And so that happens in the building industry as well.


We have confused Maslow's hierarchy of needs, just a little bit. On the bottom tier, we have basic needs: shelter, clothing, food, water, mating and so forth. Second: security. Third: relationships. Fourth: status, self-esteem — that is, vanity — and we're taking vanity and shoving it down here. And so we end up with vain decisions, and we can't even afford our mortgage. We can't afford to eat anything except beans;


that is, our housing has become a commodity. And it takes a little bit of nerve to dive into those primal, terrifying parts of ourselves and make our own decisions and not make our housing a commodity, but make it something that bubbles up from seminal sources. That takes a little bit of nerve, and, darn it, once in a while, you fail. But that's okay. If failure destroys you, then you can't do this. I fail all the time, every day, and I've had some whopping failures, I promise — big, public, humiliating, embarrassing failures.


Everybody points and laughs, and they say, "He tried it a fifth time, and it still didn't work! What a moron!" Early on, contractors come by and say, "Dan, you're a cute little bunny, but you know, this just isn't going to work. What don't you do this? Why don't you do that?" And your instinct is to say, "Well, why don't you suck an egg?"




But you don't say that, because they're the guys you're targeting.


And so what we've done — and this isn't just in housing; it's in clothing and food and our transportation needs, our energy — we sprawl just a little bit. And when I get a little bit of press, I hear from people all over the world. And we may have invented excess, but the problem of waste is worldwide. We're in trouble. And I don't wear ammo belts crisscrossing my chest and a red bandana. But we're clearly in trouble. And what we need to do is reconnect with those really primal parts of ourselves and make some decisions and say, "You know, I think I would like to put CDs across the wall there. What do you think, honey?" If it doesn't work, take it down. What we need to do is reconnect with who we really are, and that's thrilling indeed.


Thank you very much.



In this funny and inspiring talk, Dan Phillips tours us through a dozen homes he's built in Texas using recycled and reclaimed materials in wildly creative ways. Brilliant, low-tech design details will refresh your own drive to make more with less.

About the speaker
Dan Phillips · Builder

Dan Phillips builds homes out of recycled and reclaimed materials in Huntsville, Texas.

Dan Phillips builds homes out of recycled and reclaimed materials in Huntsville, Texas.